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News > Companies
Ford, Firestone point fingers
September 7, 2000: 12:43 a.m. ET

Companies try to pin blame on each other, but others say both are at fault
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WASHINGTON (CNNfn) - U.S. lawmakers expressed dismay and outrage at Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. during a marathon day of hearings Wednesday which concluded with Ford's chief executive forcefully blaming the tire maker for not acting quickly enough to recall millions of tires that have been linked to at least 134 deaths in the United States and abroad.

"Because tires are the only component of a vehicle that are separately warranted, Ford did not know - I'll repeat that - Ford did not know there was a defect (in the tire) until we virtually pried the information from Firestone's hands," Ford CEO Jacques Nasser said in testimony late Wednesday. "We then demanded, insisted, that Firestone pull the tires from the road."

During 13 hours of congressional hearings on the handling of last month's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, officials also chided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for taking too long to respond to complaints that the tires were separating from their treads, even though an insurance researcher notified NHTSA of the problem nearly two years ago.

"We need to know why NHTSA, which has officials who are paid to do nothing else but monitor accidents, have been asleep at the wheel when it had information served up to it on a silver platter by State Farm Insurance Company which would suggest grave problems with Firestone tires," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich, referring to the State Farm researcher, Sam Boyden, who first discovered the link between roadway fatalities and the tread separation problem.

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Federal safety officials say up to 88 deaths in the United States may have been caused by tread separation on some versions of the Firestone Wilderness tires, as well as its ATX and ATX II models. Most of the 6.5 million tires involved in an Aug. 9 recall are on Ford Motor Co. light trucks and sport/utility vehicles, such as its best-selling Explorer. Officials in Venezuela are also investigating whether the tires led to 46 deaths there.

On Sept. 1, NHTSA issued an advisory on an additional 1.4 million older model tires after Firestone refused to recall them. Firestone said it didn't find enough evidence to issue a recall.

Harsh words from Congress


"I would like to know how it could take us 10 years, dozens of lives, numerous lawsuits, substantial consumer complaints, tire replacements overseas and repeated expressions of concern by an insurance company before any action was taken to initiate an investigation into the safety of a product being used by millions of American families," Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Transportation subcommittee said. "Simply put - the American people deserve better."

The chief executives of both Japan's Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford defended their companies' handling of the massive recall but they could not explain why the treads on the recalled tires are vulnerable to separation or why it too so long to notify the government about the problems with the tires.

"I come before you to apologize to you, the American people and especially to the families who have lost loved ones in these terrible rollover accidents," said Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono, an apparent reference to incidents involving Ford Explorers, which often came equipped with the recalled tires.

"I also come to accept full and personal responsibility on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone for the events that led us to this hearing," he added, speaking slowly in broken English. "I am not able to give you a conclusive cause at this time. However, you have my word that we will continue until we find the cause."

But Bob Wyant, Firestone's vice president of quality control, when asked why certain U.S. states were not included in the recall, admitted the company could have handled things better. "We didn't have a plan that was all worked out. We changed things as we went along."

Ford's Nasser claimed the nation's No. 2 automaker "took the initiative" to address the tire problem. "If I have one single regret, it's that we did not ask Firestone the right questions sooner," he said. Nasser also detailed a new notification plan to better inform governments of safety problems.

Nasser said Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires on 1995-1997 models did not experience tread separation problems, answering critics who have claimed that the Explorers, with their high center of gravity, are more likely to roll over in a blowout such as one caused by tread separation.

Ford may call on Goodyear again as officials said Wednesday they were in preliminary talks with the Akron, Ohio tire maker to supply tires for the 2002 Explorer. Goodyear would be the third company supplying tires for the redesigned sport utility vehicle, joining Firestone and France's Michelin.

Lawmakers on the offensive


Legislators spent most of the day Wednesday focusing on why the companies and NHTSA did not act faster to warn consumers. 

"We've seen claims in the last month that they didn't know until July of this year, and now you're working around the clock to find out what's wrong," said Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican. "That's rubbish. You knew you had a problem a long time ago. You had recalls in 18 countries. This committee's staff has uncovered memos going back to 1997 where you knew you had a problem and you didn't do anything about it."

Sue Bailey, administrator of NHTSA, told a joint House subcommittee hearing the agency had no record of any of the e-mails or phone calls from Boyden, associate research administrator for State Farm Insurance, detailing 21 reports on Firestone tires and Ford Explorers.

Boyden was expected to testify that he sent an e-mail to NHTSA on July 22, 1998 and April 25 of this year stating he had noticed 21 reports regarding Firestone ATX tires, and that 14 of those reports were for tires on 1991 Ford Explorers. But he said no one from NHTSA followed up with him.

"I continued to communicate with NHTSA on a great number of issues," Boyden said in prepared remarks, adding that during the summer of 1999 he telephoned NHTSA and discussed the issue with an official. On Dec. 2 of that year, someone from the agency called him back, and he again mentioned the Firestone ATX tire issue. graphic

At the request of NHTSA, Boyden said he sent another e-mail providing 70 reports on Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires on April 25 of this year.

NHTSA's Bailey testified that she had no recollection of receiving the e-mails or phone calls until agency officials tried to reconstruct Boyden's messages last month as the recall crisis first emerged in the U.S.

"More than two years ago, one of our witnesses today from State Farm Insurance Company identified a suspicious and troubling trend in serious accidents involving the now-recalled tire, mostly when mounted on the Ford Explorer," Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va. said in opening statements. "Yet when State Farm on its own initiative took the virtually unprecedented step of bringing these claims to the attention of NHTSA, the federal government's highway safety watch dog, that dog apparently was asleep."

Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., said he was concerned that problems with Firestone tires in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela were not immediately reported to U.S. officials, who might then have taken action to protect drivers at home.

"Apparently a conclusion was drawn that there was no 'legal duty' to report this information to U.S. officials," said Wynn. "I wonder whether anyone considered whether there was moral duty to report this information to U.S. officials, and so I'm very concerned [about] what the leaders of these two companies have to say about the subject of where their responsibility [lay] in responding to this particular crisis."

Most of the recalled tires apparently were manufactured at Firestone's factory in Decatur, Ill., leading lawmakers to question the company's quality control procedures there.

"What the hell was going on in that Decatur plant?" Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., thundered during questioning of Firestone executives at the hearing. "What kind of mechanisms did you have in place to observe this? The problem starts at the point of manufacture."

"We inspect the products all the way from the raw materials, from quality control systems, from the product going out the end of the plant," said Firestone's Wyant.

Senator Shelby suggested a sinister motive by Ford and Firestone for not reporting the tire problems to federal authorities.

"Does it concern you that Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, I believe, concealed a lot of this information rather than tell the public?" Shelby asked Bailey, the NHTSA administrator.

"The manufacturer has a responsibility, once they detect a defect to notify us," Bailey responded. "We'll also be looking at the timing of that notification and other aspects of the case that are under investigation now so yes, of course, it's a concern."

Since the recall began last month, the relationship between Ford and Firestone has become strained, with each side blaming the other for not notifying consumers sooner.

On Tuesday, a 1999 memo from Ford surfaced, suggesting Bridgestone/Firestone tried to keep defective tire information in Saudi Arabia from the U.S. government. 

Ono and other Bridgestone/Firestone officials told lawmakers they were not aware of any memo urging Ford not to notify the U.S. government about its replacement program in Saudi Arabia.

Shares of Ford (F: Research, Estimates) gained 56 cents to $28 Wednesday. Shares of Bridgestone slipped almost five percent in early Tokyo trading Thursday to 1,253 yen, or $11.95. Back to top

  RELATED STORIES

Bridgestone/Firestone, union ink tentative pact - Sept. 4, 2000

Firestone recall timeline - Aug. 30, 2000

A long wait for new tires - Aug. 11, 2000

Handling the Firestone tire recall - Aug. 9, 2000

Firestone tires recalled - Aug. 9, 2000

  RELATED SITES

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.